How to Tackle Smoking Withdrawal Symptoms

There’s no escaping the fact that smoking withdrawal is the hardest part of quitting. Not only do you lose that habitual crutch that you’ve come to depend on, but there’s also a range of symptoms that are associated with nicotine withdrawal—and some of those symptoms may make you question whether or not you are doing the right thing!

However, there’s also no escaping the fact that quitting smoking is the best thing you can do to improve your health and wellbeing and dealing with smoking withdrawal symptoms is part of that journey. So, to help you prepare for what lies ahead, here we look at how withdrawal symptoms from giving up smoking may affect you, and more importantly, what you can do to combat them!

How Smoking Withdrawal Works — Get Informed

Nicotine is a powerful drug, and while smoking is among the fastest ways of absorbing that drug, it is also thought that certain chemicals within tobacco smoke enhance its addictiveness, with the Royal College of Physician stating that:

Cigarettes are highly efficient nicotine delivery devices and are as addictive as drugs such as heroin or cocaine”1

When your body absorbs the nicotine from cigarettes, it affects the neurotransmitters within your brain, releasing chemicals such as noradrenaline to deliver a stimulating effect, increasing beta-endorphins to relieve anxiety, and producing long-term effects on the dopamine system; the part of the brain involved with reward, mood, and addiction2.

In short, as soon as you remove that nicotine from your body, your brain tells you that something is missing. Your body has become accustomed to those chemical changes, and in as little as 30 minutes after your last cigarette, smoking withdrawal symptoms may start to show themselves. However, while they can be unpleasant, they are certainly not harmful, and the good news is that, after a couple of weeks, the worst will most definitely be over.

What Are the Symptoms After Quitting Smoking?

Withdrawal symptoms manifest themselves in a variety of ways, and they are often linked to how much you smoked and for how long. Everybody is different, however, and while craving a cigarette is very common, some of these other symptoms may not affect you. Either way, it’s important to be aware of what to expect,

Physical Withdrawal Symptoms

Physical withdrawal symptoms are usually a product of the nicotine leaving your body. Here’s what to expect:

  • Appetite — You may notice an increase or decrease in appetite depending on the stage of your smoking withdrawal.
  • Cravings — You are likely to experience strong smoking cravings in the beginning that will gradually dissipate. You can learn more about cravings here.
  • Cough — A smoker’s cough is one of the most common withdrawal symptoms and is a product of your lungs trying to clean and repair themselves.
  • Sore Throat – Often a symptom of your smoker’s cough, a sore throat is often a result of overexerting your cough reflex.
  • Headaches and Dizziness — You may experience headaches and dizziness, and while this is concerning, it is a relatively common symptom after quitting smoking.
  • Fatigue — Feeling tired or exhausted is also a relatively common withdrawal symptom for smokers.
  • Bowel Changes — You may notice changes in your bowel habits, with constipation among the most common symptoms.

Mental and Behavioural Withdrawal Symptoms

Mental and behavioural symptoms are also associated with nicotine deprivation. Here’s what to expect:

  • Anxiety — Nicotine works to relive anxiety by chemically altering the brain. This means that anxiety is likely to rise when you stop smoking.
  • Depression — Depression is a common withdrawal symptom too, and often the thought that you may never feel good again reinforces this feeling.
  • Irritability — A common complaint for anyone trying to quit, irritability or a short temper are part of nicotine withdrawal.
  • Cognitive Impairment — You may experience a mental fog and difficulty concentrating.

How Long Will Smoking Withdrawal Last?

The instant that you put out your last cigarette, the nicotine in your body begins to metabolize, and in as little as 30 minutes you may begin to experience withdrawal symptoms. To help you get a better idea of what this experience entails, below you will find a timeline.

Smoking Withdrawal Timeline

  • 30 minutes – In the beginning, your likely to experience nothing worse than smoking cravings, however, after 30 minutes the intensity of these cravings will begin to increase.
  • 10 hours – Up to and after ten hours, you are likely to be restless and irritable, and sadness or depression may begin as you wonder how to fill the void left by cigarettes.
  • 24 hours – Irritability is likely to grow, and your appetite may begin to change. You’ll probably be hungrier than usual, and you may crave certain foods as well as nicotine.
  • 2 days – After two days, you may experience headaches, fatigue, coughing, and bowel changes. The nicotine is now leaving your body for good.
  • 3 days – Almost all the nicotine is gone, and your cravings may begin to level out. However, you may also feel increasingly anxious and depression may also be an issue.
  • 1 week – Most of the hard work is done, however, you may still experience low-level cravings and your concentration may still suffer.
  • 2 to 4 weeks – At this point, your energy levels may be down, but your brain fog will begin to clear up. Most of the physical symptoms such as coughing and sore throat will also be gone.
  • 3 months – According to research, your dopamine levels will return to normal3 at this point, and the reward part of your brain no longer requires nicotine.

How to Deal with Smoking Withdrawal Symptoms — Get Some Help!

Dealing with the symptoms after quitting smoking is part and parcel of the journey. However, if you’re committed to quitting, there’s plenty of things you can do to reduce withdrawal symptoms and give yourself a better chance of succeeding.

  • Use NRT Products – NRT has been shown4 to help smokers quit for good by reducing the most intense withdrawal symptoms and cravings. In essence, they allow you to gradually reduce your nicotine intake, helping your body adjust to the changes.
  • Try E-Cigarettes – E-cigarettes can work in a similar way to NRT products, helping you to gradually reduce your nicotine intake. However, there are other risks with e-cigarettes that you can learn about here.
  • Speak to Your Doctor About Prescription Drugs – Prescription drugs such as Champix and Zyban work to dampen withdrawal symptoms and make smoking less pleasant.

Other Ways to Deal with Smoking Withdrawal Symptoms — Stay Strong!

If you’re taking the cold turkey route, or you feel you need a little extra help on your quitting smoking journey, the following are useful tips and tricks to get your through the most intense withdrawal symptoms.

  • Exercise — Physical activity can both relieve withdrawal symptoms and distract from smoking cravings. Additionally, it’s another step on the road to a healthier body.
  • Change Your Routine — If you’re often around other smokers, it’s a good idea to stay away for the first few weeks while your withdrawal symptoms are strongest. Additionally, identify and avoid your smoking triggers, or times that you would usually smoke.
  • Keep Your Hands and Mouth Busy — You may find that you are restless and compelled to keep your hands and mouth. This is the part of the withdrawal process tied to the physical act of smoking. Try chewing gum, sucking on boiled sweets, and make sure you drink plenty of water.
  • Keep Your Brain Busy — Tricking your brain and distracting yourself from your withdrawal symptoms can really help. Try puzzles such as crosswords or sudoku, or simply recite a tongue twister when you are suffering to trick your brain.
  • Remind Yourself Why You Quit — When you start your quit smoking journey, it’s a good idea to draw up a plan and list your reasons for quitting. When you experience withdrawal symptoms, you can then easily remind yourself why you are quitting.
  • Talk About It — Talking to ex-smokers, friends, family, or professional healthcare workers can help keep you on track by reminding you why you quit, while also distracting you from the worst symptoms of withdrawal.

Dealing with your withdrawal symptoms is one of the most challenging parts of your quit smoking journey. However, if you can successfully get through the first few days and weeks then you’ll already be on the way to a smoke-free future.

For more information on quitting, on ways to help relieve withdrawal symptoms, and for help and support along the way, speak to your local pharmacist or contact the NHS stop smoking service.

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